Book Review: Penguin Classics Science Fiction Series

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Cover designs for Penguin’s Science Fiction Classics

Between the era of Penguin Classics Black Spines (1963, designed by Facetti, sans serif font) and the era of New Black Spines (2003, book title in italics, author in red tones), there were the brief years of the Flash Top Black Thorns. It was a simple color code: red for the English language, yellow for European (which included Russia and Scandinavia), green for “Oriental”, and purple for the Greek and Roman classics.

I wonder if the design of these new “Penguin Classics Science Fiction” is a slight nod, as they are beautiful books with purple spines. The new emperor would have “taken the purple” – has science fiction now become more important than Sophocles and Cicero? They also have the most beautiful covers: black and white line drawings by Le Corbusier, Hans Arp, Picasso, Saul Steinberg and others. If you’re expecting sci-fi to come in full-color fluorescence, with a vaguely phallic spaceship, then this is insisting on a different idea; that science fiction and modernism have always gone hand in hand.

The first ten titles are a wonderfully eclectic selection and prove that science fiction is not a unitary genre. There are collections of short stories, philosophical speculations, horror, satire, and that big, “unclassifiable” category. The oldest dates from 1884; Flatland by Edwin A Abbott, a “multidimensional romance” and an introduction to mathematics. We (1924) by Zamyatin is in my opinion a far greater dystopia than Orwell or Huxley. There’s a judicious selection of three HP Lovecraft stories, from 1927, 1930 and 1935, very much in its vein of cosmic terror rather than its more racist tone. While I love Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle (1963), with its polemical, free-wheeling apocalyptic concept, I might have preferred to re-read either The Sirens of Titan or the more metafictional Breakfast Of Champions.

Another household name might be Stanislaw Lem, mainly because his novel Solaris was filmed three times, once by Tarkovsky. It is ingenious to take up a lesser-known work by him, La Cyberiade (1965), since it highlights his other registers. Two “builders” – robots or embodied artificial intelligences – called Trurl and Klapaucius, who are friends and rivals, have various adventures and misadventures, almost similar to a Bouvard and Pécuchet, or Vladimir and Estragon, or Laurel and Hardy of Outer Space . Although it’s funny, it’s serious; not just in metaphysical speculations, but in the unimaginable nature of what they describe. The pun and ingenuity in it all make a page laugh.

It also made sense to include A Billion Years Before the End of the World (1977) by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, a Soviet black comedy play where Dmitri can never make his scientific discovery because of interruptions, secret police and jealous colleagues, leading to increasingly fanciful interpretations of what is really going on. The story “Roadside Picnic”, not here, alas, by the brothers was also the inspiration for Tarkovsky’s Stalker.

I had never read Robert Sheckley before, but based on Dimensions Of Miracles (1968), I certainly will. There’s an excitement to this novel, about an unfortunate galactic lottery winner who finds it harder to get home than to pick up the prize. Comparisons to Douglas Adams are fair, but Sheckley seems to go deeper into the weirdness of what the unknown might be. Also, there’s a comical dinosaur and my favorite line from one of them: a creation contractor says, of churches, “Why should I go somewhere where a God doesn’t wouldn’t come in?”

The others were complete revelations. Trafalgar (1973) by Angélica Gorodischer, these are intertwined stories, featuring the eponymous anti-hero. Although the stories are told in contemporary Argentina, Trafalgar himself is a prankster, hopping from planet to planet with no care in the world except making a profit. The disjunction between a clearly evoked reality and multiple alternate worlds is part of the charm, but there too there is steel. A story like “The González Family’s Fight for a Better World” is horrific, with the dead literally having a deadly hold on the living. I had read a few James Tiptree Jr stories, but 10,000 Light Years From Home (1973) was an eye opener. For starters, “James Tiptree Jr” was actually Alice Sheldon, and reading the stories made me wonder why anyone was fooled by the pseudonym. The range here is staggering. One story, “Faithful To Thee, Terra, In Our Fashion” is a dark satire on Monster Truck derbies. “The Man Doors Said Hello To” is goosebumps. The stories, especially about femininity and bureaucracy (who thought science fiction could make sense of logistics management?) are superlative.

Finally, there is The Hair-Carpet Weavers (1995) by Andreas Eschbach. I have never read anything like it. On a distant planet, an indentured but respected class devote their lives to weaving rugs, made from the hair of their wives, to festoon the Emperor’s palace. Rumors abound that the Emperor is actually dead. There are no hair mats in the palace, but they were always sent on time. Each chapter made me click “so here is our hero” and each time I was wrong. The ending is devastating, and as a work about what totalitarianism really is, it is second to none. Science fiction is not a genre. It is Literature.

Penguin Classics Science Fiction, £8.99 each

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